Tag Archives: Sin

Portraits of Christians – Blaise Pascal

For those keeping count, this the 6th portrait of a great, world-renowned scientist who was also a Christian. This compatibility of science and Christianity may surprise some of you. Well, keep reading!

Blaise Pascal was born in 1623 and died in 1662 at the age of only 39. Yet in that time, he set a high bar. With his mother having died when he was 3, and himself being ill most of his life, his father homeschooled him.[1]  Publishing his first mathematical treatise (on conic sections) at only 16, and inventing a mechanical calculator at the age of 22, he went on to contribute much to our understanding of hydraulics and probability theory. In fact, his mechanical calculator, considered the first computer,  is the reason the first computer programming language I ever learned was named after him. If you’ve used hydraulic brakes in your car, or used a forklift, or a shop press, you’ve applied Pascal’s Law. What he discovered was that pressure increases are equal at all points in a confined fluid, so applying a small force to a small area of confined fluid (like pushing the brake pedal in your car) resulted in a multiplied force at a larger area (like the pistons clamping down on your brake rotors). And if you’ve ever given or been given a shot of any medicine, you’ve benefited from another invention of his: the syringe.[2]

But Pascal realized, like the apostle Paul, that all his accomplishments were rubbish compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ.[Phil 3:7-8] And so Pascal undertook composing a defense of Christianity against the attacks of the skeptics of his day. Though it was never finished, the fragments of his would-be magnum opus were collected posthumously into what has been titled “Pensées”, or “Thoughts”. Some are barely a sentence or two, while others are meticulously edited, rigorous examinations of deep philosophical ideas. The overarching theme of Pensées is what has been called Pascal’s Anthropological argument: that mankind exhibits a greatness and a wretchedness that is best explained by Christianity,[3] and this is just as powerful an argument today as it was then.

You see, while some will try to reduce humans to simply “talking apes”, most people do recognize that there is something different about us compared to all else. Socrates defined man as the “rational animal”, acknowledging that we have a fleshly, animal nature, but that we are different from animals in our reasoning and self-awareness. Humans hold a unique position in the scheme of life, and it is not arrogance to recognize there is a degree of “greatness” associated with that. Pascal would say that “man is only a reed, the weakest in nature, but a thinking reed,” and so nobler than all the unthinking universe.[4] But our wretchedness, as Pascal calls it, is perhaps even more obvious to the casual observer than our greatness. For as long as we have had recorded history, we have recorded incessant war, brutality, murder, theft, poverty, greed, corruption – vice after vice. If we are the top of the line, the most advanced of all intelligent life, why do we find it so difficult to “act that way”? And it’s not just the obvious cases like the Hitlers and Stalins of the world that have failed to do the right thing; it’s each one of us. When we’re alone, away from all of the distractions and busyness of our modern lives, and can take a minute to look in the mirror of our minds, we recognize our wretched condition. In those times of self-reflection, we can truly commiserate with the apostle Paul,  “For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate…. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want…. I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good…. Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?”[Rom 7:15,19,21,24] Paul strikes a chord there that Pascal builds on to make his case for Christianity. For this sense of greatness is at odds with our clear observations of our baseness. And as Pascal points out, no other view of life makes sense of this dichotomy as well as the Bible, with its description of our creation in the image of God (our greatness), but also our fall into rebellion against our Creator and the attendant consequences (our wretchedness). To put it in terms of abductive reasoning, Christianity has superior explanatory power than the competing views (atheism, false religions).

Pascal also strove to show man the need for urgency. Perhaps his own chronic illness was a daily reminder of the frailty of our physical life, and a motivation to not delay the most important of decisions and to strongly encourage others to do likewise.  Apathy regarding the truth of Christianity is the worst course of action: “It affects our whole life to know whether the soul is mortal or immortal.”[5] As Peter Kreeft points out in his analysis of Pascal’s Wager, “to every possible question life presents three possible answers: Yes, No and Evasion. Death removes the third answer…. Death turns agnosticism into atheism. For death turns “Tomorrow” into “Never.”[6]

In closing, Pascal’s life was a candle that burned quickly, but brightly. And his legacy as a prodigious scientist is only matched by his legacy as a profoundly insightful Christian. Rather than incompatible parts of his life, his faith and his science worked together. As Encyclopedia Britannica put it, “his religious writings are rigorous because of his scientific training”.[2] Think about that term “rigorous.” Synonyms include: extremely thorough, exhaustive, accurate, careful, diligent. Could your beliefs be described that way? Dig into Pascal and make yours a more rigorous faith that will withstand any assaults from false ideologies.[7]

[1] Clarke, Desmond, “Blaise Pascal”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2015/entries/pascal/ , accessed 2016-12-14.
[2] “Blaise Pascal”. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Blaise-Pascal, accessed 2016-12-15.
[3]Douglas Groothuis – Christian Apologetics 101, session 19 (audio course), published by Credo House, 2014.
[4] Blaise Pascal, Pensée #200, as found in Peter Kreeft’s excellent book, Christianity for Modern Pagans: Pascal’s Pensées, Edited, Outlined & Explained, (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993), p. 55. Pensée numbers are Krailsheimer’s numbering scheme.
[5] ibid., Pensée #164.
[6] ibid., Pensée #418, footnote J.
[7] If you’ve ever started Pensées, struggled, and given up, I highly recommend Kreeft’s work, available here.

“Now Hiring: Evangelists”

St. Paul Preaching at Athens - by Raphael
St. Paul Preaching at Athens – by Raphael

Over the last few years, I’ve noticed a trend among product vendors to label their marketing as “evangelism”. Autodesk, producer of the Revit software I use (along with I don’t know how many other programs) has “Technical Evangelist” as an actual job title. These are the people usually doing the blogs and seminars and webinars, telling us design professionals how their product will be so incredibly helpful to us in our day to day jobs. And while dictionaries may describe this type of evangelist as “someone who talks about something with great enthusiasm,”[1]  I’d like to suggest that there’s more to these companies’ choice of job titles than just their employee’s attitude. But for that, we have to look back at the origins of the word.

Now maybe you’re familiar with evangelists as preachers. Maybe you’re cynical toward Christianity because of televangelists you’ve seen on TV: maudlin, maybe a little crazy, but like clockwork when it came to asking for money. I understand. But set aside those impressions for a moment, and come back with me to a time before the word was sullied with such behavior. If we dig into the Bible, we’ll find the following statement in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian church: “Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved…”[2]  The noun “gospel” above is εὐαγγέλιον (euangelion) in the Greek. Likewise, the verb phrase “preached to you” (or “proclaimed” in other translations) is εὐηγγελισάμην (euēngelisamēn). Remember that in it’s transition from Greek to Latin to English, the “u” became a “v”, and you can then see the root of our word evangelist or evangelism in both of these. But the “eu” at the beginning of both of these words is why companies sometimes call their marketers evangelists: “eu” means good in Greek. The other root, ἄγγελος (aggelos) means a messenger. This is the same word we get “angel” from, for angels serve as messengers of God. Put together, an evangelist is a messenger proclaiming good news or tidings. So when a vendor sends a technical evangelist to talk to me, they’re hoping to deliver a “gospel” of sorts (i.e. good news). And if their product really does work the wonders they promise –  well then, that would be good news!  The key point is, it’s not enthusiasm, but the content of their message that (hopefully) justifies the job title. “Good news” is at the very heart of the word evangelist, by definition. If it’s not good news to the audience, then evangelist may not be the most appropriate job title. But if it really is good news for the people you’re going to, then there’s also a reason to talk about it “with great enthusiasm”.  It’s not just an act then.

Now, what of the original evangelists? Does the Christian gospel actually bring good news? Indeed! Paul’s statement above speaks of the gospel (or good news) “by which also you are saved.” Many see the news that we are all sinners, worthy of condemnation by a just and holy God as bad news – even offensive news – and stop there. But is that part really “news”? When you look at the nightly news, or read the papers or look back through history books, can you honestly say humans are not fallen creatures? In spite of all our scientific and cultural advances, overall, we excel at finding better, more efficient ways to destroy and kill. We tend to be like the classic arch-villian of comics and movies – so much potential for good, yet so often choosing evil. In our heart, in those quiet times of reflection, we recognize that something is wrong at the core of us. And no amount of cultural progress or species evolution could ever fix it. Christianity not only explains our potential for good (we were created in the image of the one truly good God), but also our actual failure to realize that potential (we have all inherited a terminal disease called sin, that is, rebellion against our good Creator). Christianity recognizes the depressing problem that we can’t “fix” ourselves no matter how hard we try, but also proclaims the rest of the story – the amazing solution that God has intervened to do what we never could! Now that’s news.

Allow me to illustrate our trying hard to be good, but still failing. I never learned to swim until high school, when I took swimming lessons. After getting chided by my coach for doing something incorrectly, I flippantly remarked, “Oh well, practice makes perfect”, at which she snapped back, “No! Perfect practice makes perfect!” She was right. Practicing swimming strokes wrong will never make you a better swimmer, no matter how sincerely or devotedly you practice. Religious devotion or trying to lead a “good life” (by whose standard, anyway?) can likewise never succeed. That’s because the standard to meet is perfection. But, as the old sayings go, “to err is human,” and “nobody’s perfect.” In every other religion, you must earn salvation. Only Christianity proclaims this supreme unfairness, that God, in the person of Jesus, perfect and without sin, would become a human like us, to offer Himself as a sacrifice in our place, taking the punishment we justly deserved, that we might be justified and acceptable before God despite our utter inability to ever “measure up.” That’s not just good news – that’s GREAT news! And with news like that, how could we not proclaim it?

[1] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/evangelist, accessed 8/8/2016.
[2] 1 Corinthians 15:1, NASB.

Theology Among the Weeds

thistleIf only grass grew as well as weeds. I’ve seen weeds grow a foot or more in the time it takes the grass to grow a couple of inches. The weeds can completely fill in any bare spots in your lawn while the grass is ever so gingerly encroaching.

Sin is like weeds. Of course, this is not a new comparison, but it hit me while I was pulling weeds in my yard the other day. I hate redoing work, and I’ve noticed that my yard wouldn’t look so desperately in need of mowing if it weren’t for the weeds towering over what’s left of the grass. Of course, mowing the weeds doesn’t get rid of them any more than it gets rid of the grass. I tried several weed killers that made the weeds go limp for a few days before they rose again triumphant, like the mythical phoenix from the ashes. And so I went old-school: laboriously pulling each and every weed I came across, and throwing them in a burn pile, maniacally daring them, “Grow back now!” But in this war I wage against the infiltrators of my lawn, I recently noticed how sneaky and varied some of my adversaries’ tactics were. Some give up without a fight, but have been fairly successful in overrunning me with sheer numbers. Others tenaciously gripped the soil and were prickly all the way down to the ground, so that I had to wear thick gloves. Many of the weeds had firm roots, but they were still the weak link on the more fibrous, tough stems. But then some broke off above ground with almost no resistance. It was almost impossible to pull them and not leave the root behind. And by not getting the root, it’s almost guaranteed that one will come back to fight another day. So what did I take away from this excursion into the enemy-controlled territory of my yard?

  • Some sins are simple to not do, taken one at a time, but they are many. They’re all the little things like snapping at your spouse and cutting someone off in traffic. They’re the thousand decisions we make every day to not “love others as Christ loved us”. They’re so easy to commit that we stop thinking about them, and they become the template of our lives. Before long, our yard is defined more by the thousands of little weeds that we let overrun us, than it is by the grass we were supposed to be cultivating.
  • Other sins won’t be so easy to uproot. I’ve wondered if some weeds had the root structure of an oak tree before! But even if it’s easy for you to fight a temptation (anger, for instance) doesn’t mean it is for everyone. So be truthful in calling a weed a weed and a sin a sin, but with love, respect, and encouragement for the person fighting that battle. And if they’re struggling, help them; don’t sit back and criticize them for their struggle.
  • Some sin has prickly defenses to discourage us from trying to root it out. Lust is a prime example. Any guy that’s ever realized the damage porn was doing to his marriage (before it was too late) is probably familiar with the sting of the barbs, throwing away the videos and magazines and hearing the parting taunt “Don’t throw me out, you know you can’t make it without me….”
  • I like the look of my freshly cut lawn from this weekend, but unfortunately, I can’t tell where the weeds are now until they start to grow back. For a few brief days, my yard looks pretty good. But the problems I didn’t eliminate will come back, over and over and over, until I finally root them out. Some sin appears to be “taken care of”, but is still lingering below the surface, waiting to return.
  • If you let the weeds go too long, they go to seed, and multiply. Worse, they can spread to your neighbor’s yard and earn you frowning glares. Sin multiplies readily in your life if you let it become habitual. Worse, the Bible warns that “bad company corrupts good morals.” Don’t be the bad company that drags someone else down.

So there you have it. Today’s blog brought to you by dandelions, thistles, foxtails, about 10 other weeds I don’t know the names of, and … several hours of boring, tedious lawn maintenance! But seriously, remember that it’s only faith in Jesus’ atoning sacrifice that justifies us, and only the power of the Holy Spirit in us that allows us to conquer the weeds of sin.

Jargon, or Translating Christianese, Part 1

DictionariesI took an online class this past fall about designing bracing connections and the instructor mentioned a term I wasn’t familiar with: “column shedding”. I looked online and didn’t see any explanations, so I asked my boss if he’d heard the term before. He hadn’t, so I asked the instructor and learned that it described a situation where 2 braces intersecting a column that should have opposite loads of tension and compression both go into compression because the highly-loaded column “sheds” some of its load into the braces.  Now I know a new engineering concept, and “knowing is half the battle” (anyone else remember that from the old G.I. Joe cartoons?).

The instructor in that class had used a bit of jargon: “the specialized language of a trade, profession, or similar group, especially when viewed as difficult to understand by outsiders“. Why do we use jargon in the first place? Because it’s a shortcut. If everyone in the conversation understands the terms, you can condense a big concept or a whole series of concepts into a short statement and not lose any of the meaning of your message.  And when that’s the case, it makes for efficient communication. The pitfall is in the assumption that everyone understands the concept represented by these specialized terms. We often learn on-the-job via “trial-by-fire” scenarios where we learn just enough to accomplish the task at hand, but never go back to learn the theory behind the application. So sometimes even when people know the terms, they may not understand the entire concept behind them.

Have you gone to church or listened to a preacher on the TV or radio and heard what sounded like jargon? Insider talk? “Christianese”? Church lingo? Maybe it was your first (or only) time in a church and it sounded pretentious, like they were trying to see how many impressive seminary words they could squeeze in. Maybe you’ve been attending church for a while, and feel embarrassed to ask now. Either way, some definition of terms might help clear up the muddy waters. So in this series of posts, I’ll try to define a couple of common church terms in non-“churchy” terms each installment. Since I went over faith in detail last week, we won’t rehash it today. You can read that post here.  Now, let’s look at another term: “sin”.

Sin is one of those terms that none of us really like. Being told you’re a “sinner” or “living in sin” or that what you’re doing is “sinful” sounds so judgmental. But much like going to the doctor, it’s better to get the bad news and learn how to treat an illness than to be told you’re fine when you’re really dying from a curable disease. Just as with the doctor’s judgment of our physical condition, God looks at us and tells us we have a problem we can’t fix on our own, and what’s worse is that it’s fatal. Our shorthand terminology for it is sin, and it can mean falling short of the mark, disobedience, rebellion, or ignoring a command. The Bible’s statements that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) and “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) may sound harsh at first, but it really is a true diagnosis of humanity. Turn on the TV news, open the newspaper, go to any news website; the world is a messed-up place. Something’s wrong and it affects all of us, from the poorest villagers to famous celebrities to the most powerful world leaders. That’s because the problem is inside us and no amount of money, fame, plastic surgery, or respect and adoration can fix it. Our current “me generation” is simply an acting out of the pride and rebellion against God that Milton summed up so well over 300 years ago in Paradise Lost when he wrote Satan saying “Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.”[1] Whether it’s open rebellion or simply falling short of God’s perfect standard, the effect is still the same: separation from God. In the end, that’s what hell is, eternal separation from God because of our sin. And when Christians talk about sin, it’s not to be condescending, but more like a former drug addict saying “I got help, and you can too!” Despite our often flawed delivery, we are to speak the truth in love and humility, knowing that we’ve “been there, done that” (and often still do err in willful disobedience to God even though we know better).

Atheists say there are millions who are “good without God”. The problem is that “good” doesn’t cut it when the standard is perfection and “nobody’s perfect”. But to learn more about God’s standard, tune in next week for a look at “holiness” and “righteousness”.

[1] John Milton, Paradise Lost, (1674), Book 1, Line 263.